17th December 1995
KATHY LETTE: Spike Milligan was my first great love. I was about 15, and while all the other girls were madly in love with pop stars, for me it was Spike, Spike, Spike. I lived and breathed for him. If you can make a joke you can transcend any drama or trauma - and Spike's got a black belt in the art of tongue-fu. He can make a joke about anything, a really original, witty, wonderful joke.
He used to come on tour to Australia with his one-man show, and between the ages of 15 and 17, I used to hitch-hike all round the country following him. I took a girlfriend with me, and wherever Spike was, there we were. We used to rely on the kindness of passing psychopaths, hitch-hiking in lorries from Brisbane and Adelaide to Perth, Sydney, Darwin: wherever Spike was performing. I'd been brought up on the Goons, and my father was mad about them, so I was weaned on them. I also got to know him through his poetry and his books. Hitler, My Part in his Downfall is the funniest book in the universe.
Our first encounter was in Adelaide, where he was performing at the Arts Festival. I just went to his hotel and sat in the foyer until he turned up, and when he finally arrived, I launched myself at him like a Femocet missile. I'd bought him some really juvenile presents, some pine cones with poems written on them, stupid things like that. After that, wherever he went, there I was. He'd go out for a walk, and I'd jump out from behind a bush and say "Spike!" He'd be having dinner, and I'd pop up between tables. He'd be doing a performance, and I'd leap out from the side of the stage. It was chronic. But he was constantly magnanimous. My friend and I were only 15, but he treated us like equals. He was the first person to talk to me as though I had two brain cells to rub together. He told me about his heroes, mostly jazz trumpeters I'd never heard of, and the Marx Brothers.
Most Australian men are like Bonsai trees emotionally: you have to whack on the fertiliser to get any feelings out of them. Here was this man who was not only incredibly funny and devastatingly handsome, but emotionally articulate, and the author of the most heart-wrenching poetry. How could it not be love? It was like having a sugar-daddy - but without the sex. I did used to hurl myself at him, but he was always such a gentleman. He put me up in hotel rooms, lavished me with attention and time - in exchange for nothing.
After that period, Spike went back to Britain and I went to live in California, where I was writing sitcoms for Columbia; and Spike doesn't go to the States because Americans don't get his humour. But we wrote to each other. In 1988 I came to live in Britain, and shortly afterwards Spike and I met up again, quite accidentally, on TV. It was an Australian show, Tonight, which was being beamed live to Oz by satellite. Spike and I just ignored everybody else on the programne, fell on each other and did a bit of instant bonding. The floor manger was frantic but we were laughing and gossiping, oblivious to the fact that we were on live TV.
I see Spike about once a year, when he can be lured out of his Sussex hidey-hole. He doesn't really like coming up to London. These days, we also meet in television green rooms on some chat show or other. We sink a can of Fosters and a few reputations.
Spike was the first man I met who thought that women were funny. Men think we're not funny because they're terrified that we're making jokes about the size of their penises - which we are. Spike's humour is much more piercing than mine - he can decimate anyone pretentious or snobbish or yobbish.
The worst thing about having him as a friend is that every time you tell him a joke, he'll say, "I wrote that," which is annoying but always true. The Goons was revolutionary, and now, a lot of humorists are digging up Spike-isms.
He is a very passionate and compassionate man. He takes up causes and fights for them, and he doesn't care what people think about him, which is not very English. And everyone's the same to him, whether they're a socialite or a social worker. My children's favourite song is Spike's "The Ning Nang Nong" so the addiction to him is obviously genetic.
SPIKE MILLIGAN: I remember meeting Kathy; she had a very enthusiastic girlfriend with her, who I think is now in love with a convict in Ireland. That seems to say it all about the kind of people those girls were. They were living with the beach crowd, fornicating like mad, and Kathy seemed to have taken a shine to me. I don't think it was physical - I was too old. Perhaps I missed an opportunity there that I'll regret for the rest of my life. Actually, I was handsome when I was young. I could have had more women if I'd known how good-looking I was, but I wasn't at all vain, that's the trouble.
I remember she was larger than life, although I don't remember her bursting into the room - or I'd have had to clean it up. But we used to talk, and I'd tell her about my heroes. I used to be a jazz trumpeter, and I used to talk about jazz trumpet players that I worshipped like Bix Beiderbecks, and she took it all in very well. But I never talked to her about bloody Elvis, because he bored the arse off me. He deceived millions of people into believing he was a great singer, simply because he was very good- looking.
I didn't realise at first that Kathy was following me round Australia. I'd say goodbye to her in Sydney, and a few days later in, say, Adelaide, she'd come into my dressing-room. She just wanted to talk; and my ego was massaged by having the attention of someone so young and attractive. She seemed to be an intellectual, even at that age. She spoke with a degree of fluency about life. She really got hooked on me by reading my poetry. She would go for one like "Last night, in twilight gloom, a butterfly flew in my room. Oh what beauty, oh what grace, who needs visitors from outer space?" I haven't read many of Kathy's books, but I thumbed through Puberty Blues, which was rather saucy. She deals in the areas that touch on obscenity. I think it's rare for women to be funny.
I'm Irish, and Irish humour is slightly bent, it's always going diagonally or sideways. I think that's what attracted Kathy to me. I think my humour comes directly from Edward Lear and the Marx Brothers. Kathy had never heard of the Marx brothers. I remember telling her one gag from a film which floored me when I went to see it in 1936. There was Groucho Marx playing the guitar to Margaret Dupont, that imperious-looking woman who had absolutely no idea that she was in a comedy. He's playing the guitar to her and suddenly there's a knock at the door and she says, "Oh, my husband! What will I do?" And he says, "What'll I do?" And she says, "Duck behind the couch." She opens the door, the husband comes in, and Groucho pops up and says, "There's no duck behind the couch!"
When she was following me around, I gave her money and I put her and her friend up sometimes in a hotel room. I used to look forward to seeing her; touring can be lonely. She haunted me. I thought, "Is she real, why is she doing this?" I thought that if I popped her with a pin she would disappear. She was a non-functional call-girl.
Even now, her conversation bursts with energy. We talk on the telephone sometimes, but we don't actually see each other very often now. We have met several times since she came to live in England - quite often on the same television chat show - but I'm afraid each occasion is a blank to me.
Kathy is in my perma-thoughts, I can drum her up and meet her in my mind. I admire her straightforwardness - she couldn't have been born in England. That time 20 years ago, when she followed me round Australia, that was a nice period of my life!